NEVER before in the troubled history of the NWFP has the outcome of a peace agreement so heavily depended on one man. The septuagenarian leader of an outlawed Islamist movement has been entrusted with the task of ending — almost single-handedly —blood-letting and throat-slitting in one of the most strife-torn regions of the country and restoring to it an abiding peace.

Such are the dramatic twists and turns of events in the chequered history of Pakistan that the government has had to turn to the man it had cast into prison for illegally crossing over into Afghanistan to wage what he viewed as jihad against the invading American forces. His much-maligned organisation, Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi, is now being expected to salvage the seemingly irredeemable situation in Swat.

Languishing in Dera Ismail Khan’s central prison a year ago, Maulana Sufi Muhammad could not have imagined that a strange concatenation of events would enable him to emerge as a possible saviour not only of the strife-hit people of Swat but also of the government, utterly at a loss to douse the raging flames of violence in the scenic valley.

So, as the elderly, black-turbaned leader embarks on an arduous journey to accomplish a job considered by many analysts to be too difficult, if not downright impossible, those who assigned him the task must now wait with bated breath, knowing full well that the mission is not only fraught with danger but is also entirely unpredictable. No one knows what may happen if he fails.

Sufi Muhammad has gambled. But so has the secular nationalist Awami National Party government. By a strange quirk of fate, the NWFP government has had to first deal with Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, and now with Sufi Muhammad himself. The first encounter was not completely pleasant.

The May 2007 peace agreement with firebrand Maulana Fazlullah failed only two months after it was signed, leading to even more violence and bloodshed.

The peace accord not only earned the displeasure of the military establishment, which considered it one-sided, but also incurred the opprobrium of the secular-liberal elite of the country that saw it as a shameful capitulation to militants.

Is the ANP repeating the same mistake by leaning on another cleric to bring back elusive peace to Swat? From the looks of it, the ruling party was probably left with little choice.

The third phase of the military operation launched on January 26 was making little progress. But the militants were seen to be gaining ground, coming menacingly close to the district headquarters of Mingora.

Violence was taking a heavy toll on public life. Hundreds of people were being uprooted and forced to relocate to other places. For nearly a year and a half, Swat was under curfew. The ANP was becoming increasingly jittery and frustrated, coming under growing pressure from within the ranks to throw in the towel. The party took the unusual step of going public with an expression of disaffection with the military operation.

It was the inability of political parties to overcome an ascendant Taliban movement that caused the political and military leadership of the country – always suspicious of each other – to look for a new political initiative. That was how Sufi Muhammad entered the equation.

The new initiative was launched in October and was accepted with some trepidation by the political and military establishment. It received greater acceptance when reality began to dawn on the government that it would have to look beyond a military option to resolve the conflict.

Enlisting the support of Sufi Muhammad was crucial. Known to be rigid and unpredictable, Sufi surprised official interlocutors by offering to do government bidding, provided it made a public pledge to enforce Sharia in the whole of Malakand – an area comprising seven districts and designated as Provincially Administered Tribal Area (Pata).

Malakand is governed by a regulation enforced through an executive order of the governor of the NWFP with prior approval of the president.

In 1994, Benazir Bhutto’s government had introduced Nifaz-i-Nizam-i-Shariah Regulation following a violent uprising by Sufi Muhammad that was subsequently put down through the use of force. But those were different times.

Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League improved upon Benazir’s regulation to make it more effective and introduced its own Sharai Nizam-i-Adl in 1999 – a regulation still in force in Malakand.

The two regulations provided only for a judicial mechanism, but they changed little in substance. Only the designation of judges was changed to qazis. Those were normal courts working within the ambit of Pakistani laws and the constitution. No convict was ever lashed or his hands chopped off.

Dawn has a copy of the last draft that has been seen and approved by President Asif Ali Zardari, who after initial reservations over possible objections from the US finally gave the go-ahead to the ANP government to sign the deal with Sufi Muhammad.The newer version is a further improvement on the older ones. Not only does it provide for an increase in the number of courts, it also provides a timeframe to dispose of criminal and civil cases within four months and six months, respectively.

The only contentious issue of Muawin Qazi or additional judge, which some thought would open the gates of the judiciary to the clergy, has been removed.

As things are, the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code in their existing form will remain enforced in Malakand, unless the Council of Islamic Ideology declares them un-Islamic.

Unfortunately, most of the criticism of Nizam-i-Adl 2009 has come from those who have not even seen its contents. There is nothing “sharai” or “un-sharai” about it.

The argument, therefore, is not as much about the contents of the new regulation as it is about what may follow.

By enlisting Sufi Muhammad’s support, the authors of the new political approach hope to be able to drive a wedge between the father-in-law and the son-in-law, with the former promising to declare the armed struggle un-Islamic if the militants refuse to lay down their arms.

These strategists also believe that by pledging to introduce Nizam-i-Adl and not actually enforcing it, they are denying Fazlullah and his violent clan the slogan that they are fighting for shariah and are thus denying them moral high ground.

The new initiative may also set off a power struggle between the father-in-law and his estranged son-in-law.

Clearly, the government, by signing an agreement with Sufi Muhammad, is seeking to use him as a counterweight to the more radical Maulana Fazlullah.

The militants have publicly endorsed Sufi’s support for Nizam-i-Adl 2009 but while Fazlullah appears willing to concede some space to his father-in-law, he is not likely to give up his present dominant role to a much weaker new entrant on the stage.

Even the planners of the new initiative know that militants may try to wriggle out of the agreement by finding fault with the new regulation or making some excuses. In the larger scheme of things, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, of which Fazlullah’s band is a member, would not like to give up Swat so easily. What will happen then is anybody’s guess, but for now it seems that Sufi Muhammad is the government’s best insurance policy.

It is also important to know if the government has any plans to intercede during the ceasefire. Does it have the infrastructure and the mechanism to make use of this respite to try and wean away people from Fazlullah and use this to its advantage?

The more important question is: who is calling the shots?

The unfortunate thing is that the government is not speaking with one voice. A statement by Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman has created doubts and may actually be used by the militants to put the question mark over the credibility and sincerity of the government to enforce the new regulation.

The stakes are high in a triangular game between the father-in-law, his son-in-law and the government, with the brutalized and intimidated people of Swat watching in bewilderment whether their ordeal has really come to an end or is it about to enter a newer, yet bloodier phase.

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